Coming in Glory

Chapter 9

The Four Last Things
(2) Hell

The essential feature of hell is isolation. This isolation separates us both from God and from our fellow creatures. And yet we remain aware of our own identity, which now takes on the terrifying character of a separated consciousness devoid of any communication outside itself. This is a state of hell. I am aware of myself and even more aware of my total separation from any being who cares about me. Thus I become a no-person, a thing of no finite existence, in a milieu that carries on its own business oblivious of me. I cease to exist in its calculations while I am acutely aware of my own existence, albeit in a total void. In the world of time and space that we inhabit in bodies of flesh and blood, the equivalent of hell is a state of being lost in a labyrinth of subterranean caverns, shouting frantically and hearing only the echoes of our own terror. There is no one else to register the sound or to be at all concerned that we are missing from our usual position in the world's economy. A terrible claustrophobia overwhelms us, and we can scarcely bear the impress of our consciousness while at the same time flinching in horror at the possibility of our total extinction. Furthermore, we begin to understand that we are responsible for this appalling state of affairs. Like the rich man Dives in hell, we grasp with horror how our heedless way of life has borne the fruits of total isolation, whether on earth or, even more terrifyingly, in the vast realms of post-mortem existence. Indeed, in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man at least enjoys some communication with Abraham and Lazarus even if an unbridgeable gulf separates them from direct contact. In the hell of common life there may be little effective communication with any sentient form, and the isolation appears to be absolute.

Hell and heaven are no strangers to our inner awareness: we harbour both in our soul. When the consciousness leading to hell dominates our thoughts and actions, we act autocratically and without consideration for the needs and feelings of those around us. We use them without giving of ourselves to them in concern. People who act in this self-centred way lack sensitivity; they are unaware of the feelings of those around them, and are indeed in a state of inner isolation even when they are dominating the local scene. As they are in hell, so they bring the knowledge of that hell to whomsoever they meet. In the end that hellish contamination can pervert the attitudes of a large number of morally ambiguous people who have neither awareness nor peace about them. They fall into the plausible and always attractive delusion that self-actualization is dependent upon wealth, power and worldly knowledge. When all these phantoms dissolve in the enormous finality of death, there is nothing left and the person collapses into a state of punctured emptiness. He is derelict with no one to acknowledge, let alone comfort him. His knowledge of God is likewise eclipsed, because his selfish career has acted as a shutter against the entry of the divine grace into his life. Just as the sun is obliterated from our sight by a heavy layer of cloud, so is the divine presence separated from us by our attitudes of self-sufficiency and arrogance. Both God and the great communion of saints are close to the person in hell, but they cannot make their presence felt. Individual free will is sacrosanct in the divine plan. Until we face our past selfishness and our betrayal of the lives of other people, commending ourselves in abject humility to God's grace, there is no remedy for this terrible experience of isolation. The psychical counterparts of this hellish realm are a thick darkness that obliterates any knowledge of divine love and purpose, and a sense of impending dissolution that brings with it a terrible awareness of meaninglessness and corruption, even to the point of ultimate chaos.

Hell is not extinction; God's nature, which is always one of mercy, will not allow any creature to be destroyed. The position is put with searing poignancy by Hosea in respect of unfaithful, adulterous Israel; "How can I give you up, Ephraim, how surrender you, Israel? . . . My heart is changed within me, my remorse kindles already. I will not let loose my fury, I will not turn round and destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst" (Hosea 11:8-9). But the fact of hell cannot be gainsaid, let alone conveniently put on one side for future consideration. God himself cannot alter the position of a person incarcerated in hell because his gift to us of free will is sacrosanct. He can stand in quiet patience at the door of the soul and knock, but he has denied himself the privilege of forcible entry. Love can never fail, but neither can it claim power over the beloved nor inflict itself upon him. St Paul saw quite plainly that love is never boastful, conceited or rude, but there is no limit to its faith, hope and endurance (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Love is indeed the strongest of all powers, and in its capacity for total self-giving, the most terrible, for it comes from God and will not desist in its concern until the object of its ardour comes to himself, until the person unfolds into a radiant being of full humanity as measured in Christ himself. And yet the reception of God at the portal of self-awareness is a function that the soul alone can perform. To it belongs the power of welcoming God, of effecting an entry of the divine love into its own domain. The end of love is the liberation of the beloved from the prison of separateness, so that he attains divine knowledge, the very vision of God.

If severe punishment in hell is due to a self-centred way of life in the past, it is added to by the unremitting love of God. This love will never discharge the erring one from God's presence, even though he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that presence, let alone open himself to the love, a love that flows eternally from the divine face in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is therefore a terrible impasse: the creature's recalcitrance contends with the divine compassion; while the former prevents an openness to participating in life, the latter prevents an extinction of the creature. Divine love grapples with human pride, and the confrontation may continue indefinitely. As in our world we cannot compel our compatriots to like us, so God too cannot wring obedience from a rebellious creature. But as in mundane life a special circumstance may spontaneously evoke sympathy and deep respect from our bitterest enemy, so it may be that in the end the man of pride may repent and become available to the experience of God's forgiveness that opens the way to the knowledge of love. Love acts on a cosmic plane in contrast to affection, which is more limited in its scope and variable in intensity. But the circumstance that may precipitate a change in heart in a man of pride has often to be a period of very severe suffering. This is an aspect of the mystery of hell and redemption. It is important to remember that our survival is an expression of God's love, not our own merit. Nevertheless, survival of death, though a blessing, has in addition the sombre consequence of forcing us to confront our own inner hell. Until this is fully inspected and explored, the work of the soul in the afterlife can scarcely commence. As the soul becomes increasingly transparent with the release of dark, unconscious material, so it becomes a more fitting chalice of God's indwelling light.

In such a scheme there is a gradual ascent of the soul from the dark isolation of hell to the more bearable planes of an intermediate state, traditionally called purgatory in Catholic theology. It is essentially a milieu of purification; the suffering here is one of increasing self knowledge, so that the soul can see with devastating clarity the sins of omission it had committed during earthly life and also the considerable cruelty that had flowed from its distorted attitudes, a cruelty that had hurt, even maimed, the lives of many people whom the individual had encountered in social and personal relationships. The statement of Christ, "There are many dwelling-places in my Father's house; if it were not so I should have told you; for I am going there on purpose to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2), suggests, as far as the intangible nature of ultimate reality can be gauged, that the discarnate soul has to undergo many experiences in its future existence. According to William Temple in his Readings in St, John's Gospel, those dwelling-places, or mansions, are wayside caravanserais - shelters at stages along the road where travellers may rest on their journey. The basis of these experiences is varied relationships with other people, however we can envisage a person in this larger framework of vibrant life in spheres beyond our little world. In the end, soul growth shows itself in the two cardinal qualities of love and wisdom; both of these are gradually attained through the manifold experiences of life held in common with others of similar soul constitution. In other words, we grow in inner knowledge through our contact with other people, so that the less desirable aspects of psychic, or soul, life are gradually exposed, acknowledged, accepted and transfigured. These undesirable qualities are all centred around the desire for self-aggrandizement to the detriment of other people in our midst. The soul itself is an amphibious unit, having contact both with the divine and the demonic aspects of reality. This is typical psychic consciousness, essential in terms of meaningful communication with other people and with God, but also liable to be infiltrated and perverted by influences from the destructive layers of existence.

The psychic realm is that of direct soul communication from one individual to another. When the people heard Jesus, they were astounded by his teaching, for, unlike the doctors of the law, he taught with a note of authority (Mark 1:22). This authority issued from the depth of Jesus' being, his soul, and it evoked an immediate response in the souls of the masses who heard him. We may be sure it was not the intellectual sweep of his teaching that arrested them, for the common man is no theologian; it was rather the soul-quality of Christ that evoked the Spirit of God immanent in the souls of his eager audience, and all who were receptive were given their first taste of the Kingdom of God. In our smaller world, it is likewise the psychic outflow that determines the depth of a relationship between one person and another; intellectual agreement is a much more superficial factor, liable to wane as other matters supplant it in the lives of the people. The soul contact, by contrast, is much more durable. It seems probable, as far as we can conceive of such things, that the souls of the deceased effect a similar psychic communication with each other in the realms of the afterlife and, rather more evidentially, with the souls of those who are still alive in this world, according to the well-documented material of psychical research.

However, psychic communications can as easily be of evil import as of good. When a compelling demagogue addressees the masses, the burden of his message is usually one of hatred against a particular class or group in the society in which they live. If his outlook harmonizes with the prevailing ethos, the crowds can be led into terrible excesses against the objects of their fear and jealousy. The early career of Hitler, the supreme master of darkness in our century, is an eloquent example of evil communication transmitted psychically, but he is, in fact, merely a notorious example of a tendency well known among groups seeking power even to the extent of world domination. None of the major world religions has been innocent of this tendency in its darker periods. Just as the healing psychic communication of Jesus had its origin in God the Father - the Son can do nothing by himself; he does only what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19) - so the destructive psychic communication of a demagogue has its origin in the demonic influences among the hierarchy of angels. These can communicate their vindictive message, or attitude, to all who are psychically sensitive and at the same time harmonize inwardly with the evil material the demonic entities are transmitting. Those who are sympathetic to the message of hatred from the cosmic spheres provide an admirable repository for that hatred in the unconscious part of their own psyche. And so darkness infiltrates the soul, obfuscating the light of God within it to the point of threatening to destroy that light absolutely.

It is thus that we return once more to the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel: "The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it." Nevertheless, as we have observed previously, neither has the light ever mastered the darkness. The cosmic conflict continues unabated, and in our present dispensation, it appears to be mounting a breathless climax to the final field of decision. We in our world constitute a microcosm that mirrors, and at the same time influences, the macrocosm: the cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness, of life and extinction. It is a bold thought that our minuscule human civilization can affect the cosmic flow as much as the cosmos exerts its influence in our world. Nevertheless, it is true: we are all so integrally part of the one Body, whose extent is coincident with the created universe and whose Creator is God in his threefold capacity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we exert a psychic influence on the furthest galaxy, indeed the furthermost conceivable astronomical universe, commensurate with the influence that the cosmos exerts on our small planet and indeed on our individual psychic awareness. The mystics have always known of the interconnectedness of all things: William Blake states this unforgettably in his Auguries of Innocence, "To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour". Indeed, in this passage, Blake explains the cosmic relationship that permeates all the creation: it is brought into one in the spiritual dimension that transcends all space and time, finding its being in God alone. In him we live and move, in him we have our being (Acts 17:28).

When we function from the depth of our being, when indeed we are in communion with our soul, we are in similar communion with all our fellow creatures. What we send out is our own essence, pure and simple, and without any intellectual or social, accretion that might tend to obscure our true identity. In such fellowship we are a focus of healing to all those in our vicinity. When, however, we are not acting from the soul, there may be a less desirable psychic contact between us and those around us; this unconscious connection can drain us or them, or even both of us simultaneously if we are in contact with deep, dark areas of the unconscious that are more likely to be energized by the demonic strata of the psychic world than its beneficial angelic forces. In other words, when we live and work in awareness and control of ourselves, God is the master and what we give out is good, but when we are not functioning on the level of the soul we are in danger of being submerged by dark psychic currents proceeding from the unconscious which in turn is part of the collective unconscious wherein dwell the demonic as well as the angelic powers. Nevertheless it is the demonic that invariably prevails in a personality that has yielded its power of decision to forces external to itself. The crucial test is whether we call in reverence on the name of God, in whose name alone there is salvation (Joel 2:32, quoted in Romans 10:13). Usually God is absent from our thoughts.

Hell is a state of total psychic darkness in which the person can distinguish no outer form and yet is terrifyingly aware of his own presence to the void. This is the inner experience of hell: one that Jesus above all else accepted for the sake of the world. The greatest affliction, I believe, occurred in Gethsemane when he had to flounder in asphyxiating fumes of darkness, completely alone: his three disciples were nowhere available in terms of awareness, while God's presence was obliterated by the thickness of the stench of evil. This was Jesus' psychical separation from God and the world. In the agony on the cross the psychic barrier had, to some extent, been lifted, but in full view of the hostile crowd he had to show his naked impotence, not altogether dissimilar to that of a newborn infant. But whereas the infant may rely on the solicitude of those around it, Christ had to parry the darkness of human rejection and abuse. The darkness was now of a more rational quality: it seemed as if God's providence was an illusion, and that his own mission was a ghastly failure, indeed a fundamental error. We all, at one time or another, whether in this life or in the life beyond mortal death, have to undergo the experience of hell, not so much because of our deserts but for the sake of the invaluable experience it affords us of the nature of evil and the necessity of developing our spiritual faculties to deal with it and to help others who may later fall into the same darkness. Our health, whether physical or psychical, is of paramount importance, because without it we cannot serve our fellow creatures adequately. But even the experience of failing health, and the limitation it imposes on our powers to act and serve, can bring us to a completely different understanding of service in waiting and prayer. Those three women who stood mutely at the foot of the cross probably supported Jesus more effectively than anyone else as he gave up his spirit to God.

The essential difference between the type of hell suffered by a good man like Job, Jeremiah or especially Jesus, and that in store for those whose way of life is predatory and destructive of the happiness of others is that the good person's suffering, though terrible, is informed with a knowledge of personal integrity. He does not lose contact with his deep centre, the soul with its indwelling spirit . . . "all that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men (John 1:4). Therefore there is an inextinguishable hope in the depth of his being that refuses to be suppressed despite the apparent hopelessness of his cause. By contrast, the hell ahead of the sensual hedonist who cares for no one except himself is an interminable darkness in which all the worldly landmarks are obliterated. He gropes in vain for a light to show him his position, but there is none to reveal his whereabouts, let alone direct him on the way. Since his concern was only for the things of the flesh, once these have dwindled there is nothing onto which he can cling, let alone aspire towards in the future that is a Stygian blackness before him. He may console himself by conjuring up images of the past to assuage his present dereliction, but these are more illusions; they have no substance in them. In a like manner, after the death of such a degraded individual, there will be no visible landmarks to a future state of being to guide him along the path. He may therefore remain earthbound to the extent of frequenting his former place of residence, oblivious of his present position among the ranks of the deceased, and therefore unaware that he has no further claims on the things of this world. Until he begins to understand his present position and call for help, he will remain fixed, a situation we have already discussed in detail in regard to the Parable of Dives and Lazarus. Those who are involved in the ministry of deliverance are called on from time to time to aid in the release of earthbound "spirits", or entities. While some are extremely malicious, the majority are simply ignorant and unaware; when alive in the flesh they led selfish, heedless lives and are now reaping the fruits of their labours. They, like the inhabitants of Jonah's Nineveh, cannot tell their right hand from their left, and are indeed not much raised in moral consciousness above the cattle without number that accompany them. Yet God cares for them all and will rescue them, provided they, like the Ninevites, repent and purpose an amended life in the future.

The tragedy, and also the supreme glory, of the human condition, is that the spirit is willing but the flesh weak. If the spirit leads us to God, the naked flesh is more open to the wiles and enticements of the dark forces of the earth and the psychic realm. And yet the flesh is as necessary for the full flowering of the spirit as the spirit is for the full resurrection of the flesh. The conflict of the "lower nature", as incarnated in the flesh, with the higher, spiritual nature that St Paul especially defines in Romans 8:1-13, is not ultimately won for God by the spiritual side triumphing to the detriment of the flesh. Indeed, the more we view with historical hindsight the great battles of mankind and their subsequent aftermath, the more do we realize that there are no final victors other than the power of unredeemed evil. The way of God is a total restoration of all things in their own integrity, for God has created all things in their own form. Even our weaknesses may play their part in the healing of the psychic darkness that so often appears to dominate the life of all the world's creatures. The meaning and fate of evil in the scheme of reality is the final mystery.

Chapter 10
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